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More firms must be ‘outside of the square’ to improve socioeconomic diversity

Starting her own firm has been a “harder fought battle” for this award-winning lawyer, who said the legal industry needs to be more socioeconomically diverse.

user iconLauren Croft 24 August 2023 SME Law
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Michelle Dawson is the managing principal of Emplawyer, a fully remote firm across the country, and recently won the employment category at the 2023 Partner of the Year Awards.

Speaking on a recent episode of The Boutique Lawyer Show, she reflected on starting her own firm 12 months ago and the challenges of building her network in a non-socioeconomic diverse environment.

Ms Dawson has been practicsing in employment law since 2003 and said the thing she loves most about the space is the variety.


“We do front-end advisory and contracts and the more commercial elements of employment law as well as just as much of the back-end litigious stuff. So, we get to have the best of both worlds in the space. It’s certainly within our practice and I think over the last 20 years I’ve never seen two cases that are entirely identical,” she said.

“They obviously always have common themes and arise and derive from the same sources of law, but ultimately, theyre always different. And I think for my brain and for the number of hours a day that I and I know that we all as lawyers commit, that makes every day a bit different, which is lovely.”

However, Ms Dawson also noted that diversity within the legal profession is lacking, which is something she took notice of when building her own firm.

“I feel like the law itself is quite an elitist field at the best of times and I feel as though that of itself goes against looking further afield and beyond in terms of what else is out there in the way of lawyers and who can be recruited into that space. And certainly, Im not someone who comes from a lineage of lawyers. I am a first-generation lawyer and I know that for me, having been through public schools, not having had the advantage of setting foot onto a university, having completed my three degrees by correspondence, as it was then termed, I started from behind the starting blocks of many others,” she explained.

“I had to build my network from literal scratch. And I feel as though there are a lot of others out there who are in similar positions to that. And I feel as though there’s a lack of recognition overall in the profession for the place beyond the starting blocks that those people actually have to begin. And I think that those people would probably not want a leg-up so much as some recognition about the fact that it is a little bit harder for others. And I think the law is less than understood at the best of times in relation to [that fact].”

While those attending private schools and on-campus universities may have access to increased networking opportunities others don’t, Ms Dawson was hopeful about the legal profession having more of a level playing field moving forward post-pandemic – but said that there are still barriers to be broken down.

“During the period of the pandemic, many people were studying off campus and not actually having that interaction to develop their networks and establish connections with people in the same way and with the same duration [than] they might have been able to otherwise. I think it will be something that continues to rear its head. But I guess if you look at it in this way, the universal prerequisite for any person to become a partner in a law firm is their network. After all, your network is your net worth” Ms Dawson said.

“And so if you think about that in the context of somebody who comes into it with connections such as those developed through private schools, such as those developed across years of university and in other ways, you can see there where the disconnect may be between the period of time that it might take that person to build upon their networks and then turn it into something that can yield an amount of client work sufficient to get one’s foot over the line into the world of partnership versus someone who didn’t have those things.

“And Ive been very fortunate throughout my career, Ive had some amazing supporters over time. But one thing that I think has really lacked, and I notice it really lacks in general in other areas, in other instances, not just my own, is just that lack of recognition for the fact that it has been a harder fought battle for many. And I think being able to bring down some of the barriers as a profession to that would be a really important step forward.

And while diversity and inclusion are important aspects to innovation, Ms Dawson said that socioeconomic diversity is still not “getting the attention that it deserves” in the profession.

“I think socioeconomic diversity really needs to be factored into those thought processes when those nets are being cast in terms of ensuring that recruitment and retention of talent which is socioeconomically diverse, is also as important as the other really important areas of diversity,” she added.

“And its also people whove come from remote and regional areas throughout the country and indeed, of course, other countries. But there is a lot more work that the law can do. And I think doing that work would actually be really helpful to the profession as a whole because we ourselves, as lawyers have created or continued along this line where, as I mentioned before, in my opinion, the law is quite an elitist profession. And that is in fact, the perception that society has of the law and that in turn impacts the relatability that lawyers can have to their clients.

“And I think firms need to be thinking more so outside of the square than what they have been in this regard because people like me, without having had the same education and opportunities and networks from a starting point. Have enormous potential to be the best possible people, to tap into the highest possible number of new clients and to really relate to those clients and build a rapport with those clients. Because we all know that the law is driven out of personal relationships.”

The transcript of this podcast episode was slightly edited for publishing purposes. To listen to the full conversation with Michelle Dawson, click below:

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